Brookline Bird Club PELAGIC TRIP
by Jonathan Eckerson
SEP 24-25, 2016
BBC Extreme Pelagic Trip overnight from Hyannis to canyons on the edge of the continental shelf. 40 participants left on September 24th and arrived back in Hyannis on the 25th. Several MYBC members were on board for this trip, and we gave it our all, and some of us... our stomach contents.
The trip started at 5am in Hyannis Harbor and after meeting with friends, there was a general rush onboard to grab bunks. We then settled in to await our departure. It wasn’t long before the cloud covered sky grew light and finally the idling engine turned into gear and the Helen H lurched into movement. Shortly after I headed to the bow of the boat ready for a long day at sea.
Well into the middle of Nantucket Sound, a very likely Wilson’s Storm Petrel showed briefly in the waves before disappearing; our first pelagic species. Shortly after, the action began to pick up and a long winged nighthawk-like Leach’s Storm-Petrel came in; my first lifer of the trip. Several Parasitic and Long-tailed Jaegers and a second LSPE added to the fun. Leaving Nantucket Sound we entered the shoals which create areas of rip, perfect for phalarope. Indeed there were phalaropes, both Red-necked and Red. Both species were lifers and they were definitely one of my trip favorites. In this area we also had a Black-legged Kittiwake, some Cory’s and Great Shearwaters, and two Pomarine Jaegers which were lifers for me.
Audubon's Shearwater cruises just in front of the boat, affording a view from above.
© Evan Lipton
A South Polar Skua offered amazing views close to the boat in full action, chasing shearwaters and participating in general mayhem.
© Evan Lipton
Leaving the shoals, we headed back towards the deep seas. The shearwater numbers started to pick up along with a Sooty Shearwater and some more Wilson’s Storm-Petrels. The seas were becoming more rough and the swells were getting larger. I stuck to the bow of the boat, though, and surprisingly it was one of the best views and driest spots on the boat. Waves would crash on either side, but not on the prow. Standing on the bow did require some skills, however, and it required watching the swells carefully and moving your legs with the motion unless you wanted to get badly jolted.
Scanning was rather tricky from this position, but I continually swept the horizon in search of incoming birds. During one of these scans I locked onto a dark and chunky Pomarine Jaeger looking bird. It was closing in on the boat quickly and shortly someone on the bridge also saw it and yelled the startling, “SKUA TO STARBOARD”. The captain put the boat hard to starboard making the boat heel over quite dramatically and meanwhile the crew began to chum. No one was to worry, though, the skua came absurdly close allowing stunning views and photos. It also allowed us to make the ID of South Polar Skua. The skua landed to feed on chum and harassed some shearwaters before flying off again. Skuas have quite a presence and it was a thrilling experience.
We continued making our way out to the canyons and had more jaegers, some Leach’s Storm-Petrels, Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, and more shearwaters. Patches of warm water began to frequent us and being on the bow, sometimes a very warm draft of tropical-like air would hit you for a brief moment. Around this time we had another exciting visitor, an Audubon’s Shearwater! The captain was able to give chase for a short while allowing most people excellent views and confirming that it was not the much rarer Barolo Shearwater.
Still making our way to the canyons, we had about an hour or more of uneventful seas with nothing more than the regulars. We did a long period of chumming that brought in over 100 Wilson’s Storm-Petrels and three Leach’s Storm-Petrels. Not long after we finally reached Welker Canyon and ran into (metaphorically) a Whale Shark! So many people were crammed on one side of the boat that it caused it to heel over at a frightening angle and when a large swell came, it towered over the first deck and the Whale Shark almost seemed to be looking right at us eye to eye. Now my imagination may have run away there, but that was my memory of it. What a gigantic creature and absurdly awesome experience!
It was getting late into the afternoon, yet the day held more for us. We were powering along the continental shelf when a scream/shout so much more thrilling and startling than the skua yell came, “WHITE-FACED STORM-PETREL!!!”. This was my most sought after and longed for target species on the trip and it’s the holy grail of eastern pelagics. Wheeling and crashing, the boat was brought about in the heavy seas and the chase began. It wasn’t long before we caught up, though such a small and quick bird in the heavy seas made viewing difficult. We didn’t get the views of the previous years, but the kangaroo hopping White-faced Storm-Petrel was incredible to see all the same.
We began to depart Welker Canyon and head towards Hydrographer Canyon, our anchoring spot for the night. Light was nearly gone, but a few of us kept our positions on the bow and were rewarded with another White-faced Storm-Petrel that made a rapid appearance and disappearance right off the bow. Joining us in our vigil was a Bottle nosed Dolphin riding right under the bow.
Finally the last light left us and we set anchor for the night. The seas were getting rougher and being anchored made the boats movements much much erratic. I have been out at sea several times and seasickness has never been an issue, however, not everyone aboard was so fortunate. Many of the passengers had already had a most unpleasant day and tonight would most likely be a nightmare for them. I passed the night in a surprisingly deep sleep, though, and was quite ready for the day upon awakening.
A flash of yellow from the wings of a Northern Flicker was not what I expected to see out the window as I rose and apparently it had spent the night aboard. The crew had been busy chumming and working up a slick, so there was an abundance of Wilson’s Storm-Petrels surrounding the boat along with some shearwaters, a Lesser Black-backed Gull, and two Long-tailed Jaegers which buzzed the boat several times. While watching the sunrise an extremely distant flying Wood Duck was picked out! A very remarkable and odd sighting for this far out at sea.
Lifting anchor, we began to follow the shelf again. The seas were much worse today being 7-10 ft with occasional 13 ft swells and we were working against them. Some who had survived the previous day and night lost it today and were in for a miserable ride back. A mix of the common species were seen from time to time along with three Long-tailed Jaegers. We also had three leaping Bottle nosed Dolphins pass right by us.
Scattered shearwaters, Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, Northern Gannets and the occasional phalarope made their appearances as we headed in the direction of port earlier than expected due to the rough seas. Around this time my last lifer of the trip, a Northern Fulmar, passed closely by and then landed while we viewed it for a short while. A Cedar Waxwing, Golden-crowned Kinglet, other unidentified passerine, and a Peregrine Falcon were also amongst these pelagic sightings.
Entering the Nantucket Shoals again, the seas were lessening in their brutality and I took up a position near the bow again. Another Wood Duck made a close pass, a Tree Swallow passed overhead, a smattering of gulls showed, and sea ducks started to appear as finally we entered the home stretch through Nantucket Sound.
At last we entered Hyannis Harbor and though it had been an exciting two days at sea, it was very relieving to be back and off the rough seas. I ended the trip with eight lifers and a really incredible experience of being out in the Atlantic Ocean’s ecosystem; an often overlooked but unbelievable natural world. I can’t thank the South Shore Bird Club enough for allowing me to participate in this experience that wouldn’t have been possible without them, also the Brookline Bird Club for organizing the trip, and lastly the captain and crew of the Helen H - a really fabulous boating company.